The Knicks took the court Monday night with a five-game winning streak, a steady climb through the standings, net ratings that placed them among the top teams in the NBA over the last three months — and a deserved inferiority complex.
Facing off against them were the Boston Celtics, armed with the best record in the NBA and status as the defending Eastern Conference champions. So for the Knicks, no matter what they have accomplished this season, as they readied for the game at Madison Square Garden they were facing a measuring stick of just how far they have come and how far they have to go.
“Yeah, I think anytime you’re going against the Eastern Conference champion, they’re in the Finals, it’s a good test for us,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said before the game. “We know we have a long way to go. There’s obviously areas we have to improve upon. We feel if we do the right things we’ll have a chance to win.”
That is as far as Thibodeau would go in speculating on the Knicks place in the NBA hierarchy. But the facts are, while they may still be on a tier below the elite teams, they have compiled a 25-14 record since Thibodeau pulled the trigger on lineup and rotation changes, including a 5-0 mark since acquiring Josh Hart and adding him to the mix. In that 39-game span the Knicks have the third-best net rating in the NBA and the best in the East.
They entered Monday’s game in a virtual tie with the Nets for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, but still a distance behind the first-place Celtics as well as the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
But even with the season down to the final 20 games, Thibodeau didn’t want the team to get bogged down in the standings and their place in them.
“For us, I don’t want to get lost in [looking] at different segments of the season,” Thibodeau said. “I just want the focus to be on daily improvement and lock into exactly who’s in front of us. Don’t get lost in anything. There’s a long way to go here.
“We’re heading down the stretch and the intensity is going to be different heading down the stretch here. So we have to respond to that. The challenge is be ready tonight and worry about what comes next the next day. Right now lock into tonight’s game. You start looking into all this stuff, there could be a distraction every night. So you want to build that discipline of how you prepare for each night.”
The lineup change that triggered the Knicks move upward after a 10-13 start — and a troubling loss on Dec. 3 to Dallas that served as the demarcation point for the change — was to put a focus on defense. They inserted Quentin Grimes into the starting lineup and added Deuce McBride to the mix while benching Cam Reddish, Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose. But the Knicks have also been a powerful offensive team in that span.
“I think guys are playing together and playing to their strengths and I think that’s an important part that sometimes gets overlooked,” he said. “Everyone on the roster has different strengths and there’s different weaknesses. Play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses, but most importantly understand how it fits into the modern game. What types of shots are we trying to get, take and create? And I think we’ve been great at attacking the rim. I think we’re getting good rhythm now on our threes. We’re moving without the ball. We’re screening off the ball. But everyone is playing to their strengths and they’re playing for each other and I think that goes a long way.”